May 12, 2004
The enduring appeal of classic rock

Great article in the Press about Arrowfest, the local classic rock's all-day nostalgia show, and the enduring appeal of the mucis it features, which I'm somewhat surprised to learn, cuts across age groups.

This year's Arrowfest, the crown jewel of Houston's live classic rock calendar, has easily the best lineup ever: Styx, Peter Frampton, Kansas, Blue Öyster Cult, America, Grand Funk Railroad and, um, Nelson (don't ask). Among them, these acts are responsible for about a gazillion hits, from "Come Sail Away," "Do You Feel Like We Do?" and "Carry On Wayward Son," to "Godzilla," "Horse with No Name" and "We're an American Band."

And the classic rock era, which roughly encompasses the years 1967 to 1977, is seeing a resurgence in popularity -- and not just from the usual aging hippies and mulletheads. Now, their kids have discovered that Mom and Dad's music isn't so bad after all. Teens today are embracing classic rock as an antidote to vacuous Top 40 pop, bling-bling rap and overwrought, angsty nü-metal.

"The music is more genuine than what's coming out today. And they just seem more original," says 16-year-old Justin Anders of Spring High School, whose favorite groups include Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Grateful Dead, Aerosmith and the Steve Miller Band. "And the music is strange -- that's cool."

Joshua Hart, 15, of Clear Lake High, adds that "the music just sounds better, and I like a lot of the guitar solos." The fan of Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and the Rolling Stones learned about these groups from his father's record collection. "He'd play it all the time, so that's the music I grew up with."

That tendency extends even to the offspring of classic rockers, or so says Frampton himself. "Last year, my 16-year-old son listened to nothing but Limp Bizkit and Blink-182, and now he loves Pink Floyd. There is hope!" laughs the man behind one of the era's biggest records, Frampton Comes Alive! "Sometimes I'll see three generations of one family at my show, and it's the younger ones who know all the words."

Well, I'll be. There's hope for this generation yet. I confess, I was tempted by the lineup this year - one of the best rock shows I've ever seen was Blue Oyster Cult at the late, lamented venue Rockefeller's in the early 90s - but a family wedding put the kibosh on it. It pains me to put money in Clear Channel's pockets, but even I must admit that the Woodlands Pavillion is a great place to catch a show.

The rest of the article touches on any number of hobby horses that I've been flogging here lately:

USA Today recently ran a feature detailing the trend. Even some of today's bigger contemporary acts like the White Stripes, Jet, the Darkness and Kings of Leon pay homage to Almost Famous-era music while putting a contemporary twist on it.

Which of course you'll never hear on any station that features the music they're paying homage to.

Classic rock bands also tend to have seemingly bottomless wells of "unheard" material. Roark, the single-monikered host of KPFT's Friday-afternoon show Uncastrated Classic Rock, loves to plumb these hidden depths. You'll never hear Deep Purple's "Smoke on the Water" on his show, but you'll hear their "Flight of the Rat."

"Think of an album that had a couple of hits off of it. There are still eight other songs that [most people today] have never heard," he says. "I love finding that stuff, and I'm running into more young folks on the street who like classic rock now."

KKRW has been doing all-request Mondays, and I've got to say, the listeners do a pretty good job of picking music that hasn't been played to death. They sometimes pick stuff that I haven't heard on the radio in years, and once in awhile request something totally new to me. It's amazing, and I often find myself saying "why don't they put this in the rotation once in awhile so they can give Freebird and Stairway to Heaven a rest?"

A lot of the credit for spreading the history and music of classic rock bands goes to the Internet. It's something that Frampton feels the record companies were wrong to ignore, then slow to respond to, which cost them. "I have to say, I credit Steve Jobs and iTunes with single-handedly saving the songwriter's way to live, and I'm not talking about me," he says. "Because of legal downloading, things [might] change in the industry now."

"The Internet is the main way that I find out about these bands and get their music," says Cody Fritter, 17, of Cy-Fair High School. His divergent tastes include David Bowie, Parliament-Funkadelic, Creedence Clearwater Revival and Jimi Hendrix.

Do I even have to go there?

The downside for the artists is that often the festival crowds want to hear the hits and just the hits. Nothing will send the audience to the bathroom or beer line quicker than hearing this announcement from the stage: "Thank you! And now, here's something from our new record."

And that's a shame, because many of them still make extremely viable music. Frampton's fine recent release Now is a case in point. "You start off underground, and you end up underground," Frampton laughs.

OK, that's a strike against my wished-for formula of playing stuff we might like alongside stuff we're known to like. But all I'm asking is that some new stuff get a tryout, maybe even during a fixed time of the day. If listeners like it, the stations will hear about it, and if not, it's no great loss.

The "classic rock" radio format debuted nationally in the mid-'80s, and Z107 out of Lake Jackson was Houston's first station, a mantle picked up today by 93.7 The Arrow. Of course, we wanted to get some comments about Arrowfest from Arrow DJs, and morning team Dean and Rog agreed to an interview. However, the idea was nixed by the Arrow's rock programming director Vince Richards, who was apparently upset about criticism of Clear Channel Radio that has appeared previously in this paper in an opinion column (see "Racket," February 12).

Somehow, it does my heart good to know that in the end, Clear Channel will still be the villain.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on May 12, 2004 to Music | TrackBack

"Styx, Peter Frampton, Kansas, Blue Öyster Cult, America, Grand Funk Railroad and, um, Nelson (don't ask)."

Blue Oyster Cult and Grand Funk Railroad are fine by me. The rest sounds like a roll call of the worst bands / musicians of the 1970s and 1980s.

The only time I ever heard of Nelson was their appearance on the David Letterman show back when it was on NBC. I believe Dave introduced them as "Nelson and the other guy in Nelson".

Posted by: William Hughes on May 12, 2004 6:49 PM